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GOP candidates split into 2 tiers in Iowa

By David Lightman, William Douglas and Steven Thomma, McClatchy Newspapers

DES MOINES, Iowa — The volatile struggle for votes in next Tuesday’s Iowa Republican presidential caucuses featured two different fights Thursday.

One involved a top tier of candidates with clear momentum in these final days before the nation’s first caucuses. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were beaming with optimism Thursday about their prospects, while no-nonsense Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul delivered his somber message to big, devoted audiences.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, was confident enough to beef up his Iowa schedule, including a stay in Des Moines on Tuesday night to await results. He, Paul and Santorum, a former Pennsylvania U.S. senator and the favorite of Iowa’s influential evangelical community, all hosted jam-packed, enthusiastic rallies Thursday.

The other squabble featured three other candidates who are struggling to stay viable: former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has fallen sharply since his brief time as a front-runner earlier this month, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry unleashed a radio ad featuring an announcer, “Wink Tax-and-Spend,” who hosts a “Wheel of Washington” game show and compares Santorum to a pig because he supported federal budget earmarks for local projects. Perry has been fighting for the evangelical vote, which appears from recent polls to be tipping toward Santorum.

Bachmann had to convince voters that her campaign is still alive after Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson, who had chaired her state campaign, abruptly defected to the Paul camp Wednesday.

Gingrich continued to push for votes on a last-ditch bus tour around the state. He defended himself against rivals’ claims that he’d lobbied in support of the 2003 Medicare prescription drug law, according to news reports from Sioux City. Conservatives have long been wary of the law, saying it helped balloon the federal deficit. Gingrich said he didn’t lobby, but simply supported the measure.

Despite all the news media attention to the latest polls, Tuesday’s outcome remains difficult to predict, since many voters are still candidate-shopping.

Lyn Watson, an Ames homemaker, voted for Romney in the 2008 caucus but is considering Paul this time. “He feels so strongly about his views,” she said, “and he has a good base of people following him.”

Still, she won’t rule out Romney: “Maybe he could work better in Washington,” she said.

About 100 of Paul’s followers jammed a small meeting room at the historic Hotel Pattee in Perry, where they heard their candidate reiterate his pet themes of slashing government and reining in U.S. intervention abroad. He also denounced sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, saying the Iranian people could interpret the measures as “an act of war.”

“I think we’re looking for trouble, because we’re putting these horrendous sanctions on Iran,” Paul said. Iran threatened this week to close the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, through which much of the world’s oil trade ships, if the West tightens sanctions against it. The U.S. Navy has vowed to keep the strait open.

Paul’s followers are regarded as the most reliable caucus-goers. Nick Hofstetter got his grandfather, Terry McCrary, interested in Paul, and they got front-row seats for the candidate’s talk.

Hofstetter, a high school student who has enlisted in the Marines, said, “I want a commander in chief who doesn’t just want to go overseas and bomb countries for no reason.” Paul opposes most U.S. military deployments overseas.

Paul faced some controversy, as protesters from the Occupy movement were arrested outside his Ankeny headquarters. On Wednesday, seven protesters were arrested outside Romney’s headquarters.

At the eastern end of the state, Santorum basked in a late-campaign surge that’s moved him into third place in some polls.

At a town hall meeting in Muscatine, Santorum warned that America would be severely weakened militarily under a Paul presidency. Paul advocates bringing back most U.S. troops and military assets to American soil.

“Congressman Paul would take every ship that we have and bring it into port,” Santorum told a room filled with people and television cameras. “He would abandon the seas to allow other countries to tell us what the rules are for transporting our goods.”

Santorum’s attack reflected his newfound status as the most recent Republican candidate on the rise. He’d been toiling through much of the campaign season as a hardworking bottom-tier candidate competing with Bachmann and Perry for the evangelical vote.

Several people at Santorum’s event said they were still shopping for candidates and thought they would give him a listen.

Romney traveled to Mason City, where he beamed with optimism and spent his time blasting President Barack Obama rather than fellow Republicans.

“I feel like breaking into ‘76 Trombones,’” Romney said, referring to the signature song of “The Music Man,” the musical written by Mason City native Meredith Willson.

Romney spoke at a replica Main Street meant to evoke the musical about a smooth-talking salesman who charms and cons a small Iowa town. Romney’s had some problems overcoming that image himself.

Responding to a question about his commitment to the state that he long kept at arm’s length, Romney said he very much wanted to win it.

“I’m going to be here. Sure, I want to win Iowa,” he said. “Everybody wants to win Iowa. … I’m not going to predict who’s going to win … but I want to get the support of the people of Iowa. I also want to make sure that I get to the people of New Hampshire and South Carolina and Florida.” Those states are next in the GOP nominating process.

Romney urged Iowa voters to look for someone with the best chance of winning the nomination and defeating Obama.

“Who do you think will beat Barack Obama? Who do you think will win the 1,150 delegates it takes to become our nominee?” he asked. “So look at the candidates. Decide who you like and decide also who can become president and can lead this country in a time of challenge.”

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